The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, exposes the story of Henrietta Lacks; a black woman not only under privileged but also under medical research without her nor her family’s consent. Skloot’s approach to the Lacks family in researching and writing the novel is unethical and can be analyzed as well as supported through her leading intent for the novel, the originality of the language used, and her personal claim to ‘white privilege. ’ In April 2012, the University of San Diego waited to hear the Dalai Lama speak upon ethics.
Ethics is defined as the science of moral duty and the philosophical study of moral values and rules (“Ethics: A General Introduction”). With this, the Dalai Lama enlightened students and faculty on ethical dilemmas: “Scientists and others must proceed with caution and with humility and to be aware of their own potential for their work including human objects, research for potential abuse. The motivation for our work should be compassion, not utility. Scientists must be motivated by ethical restraint as well as compassion” (“Exploring Ethics: Henrietta Lacks and Human Subject Research).
Throughout Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I could not help but be reminded by Dalai Lama’s words. Several covers showcase “Her death changed the history of medicine” and “Doctors took her cells without asking”. These medical phrases grab our attention and steer us away from the main point of this story. Throughout her text, Skloot answers why Henrietta Lacks cells were taken and what makes them ‘immortal’ but she does so in a far from compassionate manner. Her reasoning behind the writing and years of research lies from a community college biology class when she was 16 years old, where He-La cells were introduced.
Over the years, Skloot became obsessed many knew nothing of this cell’s source. “As I worked my way through graduate school studying writing, I became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henrietta’s story” (Skloot 6). Skloot used her own personal vendetta as her motivation to begin researching and writing this novel, not taking into account the consequences of exploiting the privacy of the Lacks family. “she is mining [black folks] to produce the treasure that will be her book and lead to her fame. ” stated y bell hooks in her Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice, only further supporting Skloot’s unethical intentions for the completion for what would become a best-seller. (87).
One of the literary concepts Skloot used constantly in her novel were testimonies. A testimony is evidence or proof of something, a formal written or spoken statement, or a public recounting (Merriam-Webster). The Lacks family is used throughout this work to aid to the accuracy and spirit of the novel. This is demonstrated in My Place “Daisy Corunna’s Story” by Sally Morgan.
Morgan persuaded her grandmother, Daisy, to share stories of their family history as Indigenous Australians. Because of her grandmother’s willingness, Morgan was able to publish her personal discovery of her family’s identity. “I ‘member holding my breath and swimming under the water. I looked up and I could see the faces of all the animals lookin’ down at me as if to say, ‘What are you doin’ in our water, child? ’” (Morgan 411). This quote portrays the continuous language and dialogue kept of Sally’s grandmother in her work, resulting in an originality to her story.
Similar to Morgan, once Skloot was able to contact the Lacks family, she kept their unique Southern language as well as other characters to preserve the honesty in their words; however, in her text, it is evident where we see this rebound on Skloot. Ronald Pattillo, one of George Gey’s students, advised her by his own words, “Don’t be aggressive. Do be honest. Don’t be clinical, don’t try to force her into anything, don’t talk down to her, she hates that. Do be compassionate, don’t forget that she’s been through a lot with these cells, do have patience” (Skloot 51).
He advises towards compassion because of the endless attempts others have tried with seeking Henrietta’s story. The language in this testimony came across as advice for how to manipulate the Lacks family into pretending Skloot did actually care for them. In addition, the first time Skloot made contact with the Lacks family, she was dismissed by Day with his words, “Well, so let my old lady cells talk to you and leave me alone, I had enough ‘a you people” demonstrating his uninterested, and unwillingness to share his story on his wife (55).
Even though the usage of testimonies adds to the originality and validity of a piece, by using the un-edited words Skloot sets herself up for where she is shown as being persistently unethical towards the Lacks family. Relating to the historical context, the Lacks family experienced a time where blacks were subordinate to whites. The Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation were enacted until 1965. Because of this context, it was not surprising Deborah Lacks lacked education nor the ability to write. She states, “My brothers say I should write my own book. But I ain’t a writer.
I’m sorry” when she was dismissing Skloot’s follow-up phone call (54). Having said that, since Skloot had an advantage of receiving a full education, I believe she knowingly used her privilege and skin color against the Lacks family. Considering no member of the Lacks family was able to physically produce a story, I think this only further encouraged Skloot to write Henrietta’s story. Having a ‘privileged’, ‘white’ figure who seems entitled to have all the answers to a struggle they have not personally endured, can be relatable to the 2013 ongoing “Black Lives Matter” movement in the United States.
Today, many people of Caucasian demographics are proclaiming “All Lives Matter”. This significantly steers away from the main point – it is a time for black lives to be focused upon. When this phrase is used in response to the BLM movement, it ignores the systemic racism black people are facing and as a result, draws attention to white privilege. In relation to Skloot, by incorporating her character into the novel, capturing her personal struggles of writing her story and claiming herself as part of Henrietta Lack’s story she makes it seem that she experienced the same as the Lacks family.
During an interview with BBC, Skloot says “The family believes and I believe after spending so much time trying to figure her out as a person…” In my opinion, it is a disgrace Skloot feels so connected to Henrietta Lacks since she did not nor will ever experience the pain they have gone through by not being direct family and underprivileged. “BLM activist, Ashton Woods states, “Nobody knows what it’s like to be black except for a black person, and that’s culturally and ethnically speaking, because ‘blackness’ is not a monolithic thing” (Chan, J.
Clara). With all the research done, Skloot’s white privilege cannot be changed nor is it ethical for it to be comparable or justifiable to black disenfranchisement. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is an intriguing novel where her personal motives are questioned and her own ethics are tested by how far she is wiling to capture Henrietta’s story. When considering ethics, I associate it with guidelines for responsibly conduct – acceptable and unacceptable behavior, what should and should not be.
Analyzing Skloot’s ethical approach by her initial motives for the novel, her language used by characters and her ‘white privilege,’ demonstrates Skloot’s unacceptable behavior in my opinion. From the initial thoughts on writing this novel, her drive behind her actions were based on the opportunity she saw in exposing the actual life of Henrietta Lacks; similar to those scientists who were not interested in the life Lacks lived, but to where her usages led them.